Deconstructing American History in ‘Breakfast of Champions’
Postmodernism is the idea that no grand narratives, metanarratives, and ideologies truly exist. It’s the rejection of everything and then claiming that the metanarrative, that there are no metanarratives, is the real metanarrative. This essentially leads to a school of thought where everything is to be questioned, including things that are taken for granted and not thought about extensively. This process of stripping back ideas is dubbed as “deconstruction.” In his novel “Breakfast of Champions,” Kurt Vonnegut uses postmodern deconstruction to show bizarreness and wrongdoing in American history by using a lack of metanarrative and by flipping the narrrative. Vonnegut uses postmodern deconstruction to point out how silly some parts of American history appear once they are put under this scope of analysis.
To make his approach more accessible to the average reader though, Vonnegut uses the word “impolite” as a synonym for “postmodern deconstruction.” Vonnegut writes, “She taught us to be impolite in conversation not only about sexual matters, but about American history and famous heroes, about the distribution of wealth, about school, about everything” (85). To be “impolite” in this context is to then microscopically analyze everything and to see how absurd some of the things that are taken for granted become when put into a new viewpoint, one that lacks any sort of a metanarrative. The “she” in this case is Phoebe Hurty, and she is challenging the narrator to think deeper about how the world functions. Hurty gets through to him, because he claims that he did it so often and got so good at it that he said “I now make my living by being impolite” (85), which becomes evident when he starts expressing his impoliteness towards some parts of America’s symbols and history.
Chief among this criticism is when Vonnegut writes about the symbols that are present on American currency. If people search for meaning about America on its paper money, they will find, “among a lot of other baroque trash, a picture of a truncated pyramid with an eye on top of it” (89). Again, when worded such as this, it strips an image that is generally seen as powerful (even if it’s not fully understood) into an abstract idea. This absurdity is punctuated further when Vonnegut writes, “Not even the president of the United States knew what that was all about” (89), which shows that even the elite have no idea where these foundations are founded. Another technique that Vonnegut uses to show how “impolite” American history can be is by flipping the narrative of early American history. Vonnegut starts his analysis at the very beginning, and claiming that modern day teachers “concealed great crimes” (90). By this he means that elementary school educators will often only teach the good side of American history, or even just the bare facts, but they very rarely expose how gruesome some of it is, especially when the Americans clearly are the villains.
This controversy is explained by Vonnegut when he writes, “The teachers told the children that this [the year 1492] was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them” (90). He points out here that early American education often fails to include how devastated these indigenous communities were when they were inhabited and destroyed by, according to these natives and this narrator, “sea pirates,” who are notably not referred to as something less innocent by Vonnegut. The usage of the phrase “sea pirates” instead of a positive term, such as “ancestors,” further helps illustrate Vonnegut’s point. His argument is that if European settlers landing on America is viewed as a foreign invasion, which it is, people will realize the wrongdoings of America. Or, as Vonnegut likes to put it, the “impolite” viewpoint. Vonnegut finalizes this argument by writing on page 91, “The chief weapon of the sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was much too late, how heartless and greedy they were.” Again, by establishing them as an aggressor in early American history, it shows a distinctly different version of America than it normally taught to the minds of the impressionable youth.
“Breakfast of Champions” offers an idea of what some aspects of America looks like under a deconstructed postmodern microscope. First, Vonnegut analyzes the seemingly random symbols and words in a language that no one knows anymore that appear on the currency. Then, he shows how the early settlers aren’t as heroic as they are made out to be by creating a narrative for the indigenous peoples. All in all, Vonnegut’s impoliteness leads to oddities and villainy to appear in American history when it was previously hidden.
Geyh, Paula, et al. “Breakfast of Champions.” Postmodern American Fiction: a Norton Anthology, W. W. Norton & Company, 2006, pp. 85–93
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